Central America's forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. A study included in "Toward a Green Central America: Integrating Conservation and Development," a collection of articles published by the Panos Institute in London in 1992, estimated that three-fourths of Central America was covered with forests in 1950. By 1990, the forested area was only one-third.
Only 173,000 acres a year were being replanted with trees and half of them died due to lack of proper care, the study showed. Between 1990 and 1995, in the combined area of Central America and Mexico, tree loss is estimated at about 1 million hectares (roughly 2.5 million acres) a year, or 1.2 percent a year.
"In [the future], if there is massive replanting, you could still have forests, but the size is less important than the quality," says Cheri Sugal of Conservation International in Washington, D.C. Replanted forests have much less diversity of plant and animal life, she explains.
Logging and clearing land for farming or cattle are among the main causes of tree loss. Poor farmers often sell out to cattle owners who clear large tracts. Most families use firewood for cooking. As more roads are built into forests, more people move in and clear land. In northern Guatemala, in the large state of Peten, half the forests have disappeared, and the rate of destruction is increasing as more families move into the area. "We are losing 40,000 to 50,000 hectares every year" of trees, says Roman Cabrera, a federal forester.
Most of the area is legally protected from unapproved cutting, but during the long civil war in Guatemala, which ended last year, illegal cutting was not checked. Peace is attracting more people to the forests to start farming. "The peace is important, but a mountain of people will come and we are not prepared," says Mr. Cabrera. The government is trying to steer newcomers to areas approved for cutting. Meanwhile, there is no reforestation going on there, he says.
The problems are immense, but, says Mike Lara of the US-based Nature Conservancy, who works closely with Cabrera, "It's not time to turn off the lights and go home."
Costa Rica and Panama are giving tax breaks to those planting trees. Panama is reforesting areas in the watershed of the Panama Canal to minimize silting. Experts in Guatemala are studying alternative crops suited to tropical soils, such as the fast-growing velvet bean. These crops can help farmers earn more from land they would otherwise abandon and thus be less likely to cut down more trees for new farms.
But helping farmers is complicated. Conservation International is assisting families in several northern villages in Guatemala earn money from eco-tourism and the sale of forest products, such as spices. But success could attract newcomers to the area and lead to greater destruction of the forests, warns Chris Rader of Conservation International.